On 6 October 1989, the members of Dresden’s leading theatre came on stage at the end of the evening performance. They held hands, trembling, as the lead actor stepped forward and declared:
We are stepping out of our roles.
The situation in our country compels us to do so.
This statement announced a shift from theatrical dissent to political opposition, calling on spectators to join the actors on stage in abandoning the social and political roles prescribed for them by the state. The actor continued:
A country that cannot hold onto its young people
Is endangering its future.
A Party leadership that has ceased
To examine the practicability of its own principles
Is condemned to decline.
A nation that was forced to remain silent
Is beginning to grow violent.
The truth must come to light.
We have invested our work in this country.
We will not let our country be destroyed.
The theatre practitioners’ strength lay in their display of unity: the manager had decided that they must all act together, as the authorities could not afford to arrest the entire company. The next day, when the authorities banned the resolution, the actors decided to stand in silence on stage after the performance, complying with the letter of the ban but defying its spirit. This silent protest took place on the fortieth anniversary of the GDR. The resolution soon spread to other theatres across the country. Even small theatres like Parchim – a tiny town in the north of the GDR – produced their own political statements. As even loyal Party writers and directors started calling for change, the authorities in Halle claimed that artists were rushing to join in the protests for fear of being the last ones to take a stand.
Staging political debate
These political resolutions weren’t unique to theatre. The first resolution was actually drawn up in September 1989 by rock musicians, and from mid-October onwards demands for change were being drawn up in all sorts of workplaces and organizations. But in the crucial days and weeks when political events hung in the balance, theatre was in a position to substitute for the GDR media and to provide a much-needed space for public political debate – rather like the Church. At theatres in East Berlin, spectators crowded round posters and notices in the foyer, copying down the texts of resolutions to take into work the next day, or to share with friends. In the northern town of Schwerin, a local teacher was disciplined for copying down a resolution in the theatre foyer and pinning up a copy on his staffroom noticeboard. In Dresden, the theatre’s wardrobe staff were asked to stay behind for two hours after each performance so that spectators could collect their coats after long post-show discussions. In fact, the front-of-house staff had real problems in getting all the spectators from matinee performances to leave the theatre in time for the evening spectators to come in. Meanwhile, in Bautzen, in the south-east of the GDR, the local theatre supplied platforms and sound equipment for the Monday night demonstrations. While the events of autumn 1989 lend themselves to grand heroic narratives, details like this remind us of the ordinary logistical side of these extraordinary events.
The range of reactions
Individual officials and theatre managers reacted in different ways to this unprecedented political activity. In East Berlin, leading representatives of the Ministry for Culture attempted to show that they were open to dialogue; the Deputy Minister for Culture even signed a resolution produced by the Deutsches
Theater, protesting against the excesses of the security forces. But in Schwerin, the regional authorities launched disciplinary proceedings against theatre practitioners for protesting to the central authorities. Even after 18 October, when Egon Krenz – Erich Honecker’s successor as Party leader – had authorized a limited public debate, pockets of local resistance to political discussions remained. This was partly because officials simply weren’t equipped to deal with the public hostility that they encountered: in Zeitz, local Party and state representatives attended the first public meeting but banned all subsequent public events. In Bautzen, the local First Party Secretary committed suicide after the first public meeting. Soon afterwards, the theatre manager in Bautzen was appointed to shadow the town mayor, who had lost the confidence of the community. It only became clear in the early 1990s, however, that the theatre manager was himself a longstanding Stasi informer. As not all of his Stasi files have survived, we simply can’t judge the motives behind his actions in 1989. But these actions did allow the theatre in Bautzen to play an active role in the political protests. Some managers elsewhere resisted political discussions. As late as 9 November, the day the travel restrictions were lifted and crowds streamed through the Berlin Wall, the manager of one provincial theatre announced that he had not and would not allow any political statements to be read out on stage in his theatre, whatever might be going on in other ensembles.
As the GDR’s political institutions failed, theatre was one of the institutions that stepped temporarily into the breach. Throughout October and November, theatre practitioners used their professional network to exchange information and coordinate their political activity. In East Berlin, members of all the city’s theatres met each Sunday afternoon in a different theatre to discuss events. On 15 October, they decided to plan a mass demonstration the following month, circulating their plans to other theatres via the Union of Theatre Practitioners. The demonstration took place on Alexanderplatz in East Berlin on 4 November, and it was largest mass demonstration in the GDR’s history – easily beating all the many demonstrations that the regime had organized on its own behalf. The speakers included theatre practitioners and dramatists, including Brecht’s granddaughter Johanna Schall and Ulrich Mühe, best known today for his performance as a Stasi officer in the film The Lives of Others.
Overtaken by events
By the time these photographs were taken, theatres had already begun to lose their function as a centre for activity and a political substitute for the media. They and their performances couldn’t compete with the far greater drama that was taking place on the streets. From 23 October, performances in Dresden were half-empty whenever there was a demonstration outside. Productions that had seemed so topical just a couple of months earlier now seemed naïve or out-of-date. The dramatist Heiner Müller argued that events even had a comic element: people were rushing to kick down doors before they were opened. There was a hint of this in a set of political demands drawn up by a theatre in Radebeul on 6 November. The demands included the immediate resignation of the government, but this typewritten demand was crossed out by hand, with the explanation ‘already happened’. By this time, the differences between the political views of the intellectual elite and the majority of the population were becoming clear. Theatre practitioners continued to express their commitment to the GDR as a socialist state in their resolutions, yet protesters on the streets were already calling for reunification. In fact, when Heiner Müller addressed demonstrators on Alexanderplatz on 4 November, he was booed. As political censorship ended, new challenges for theatres were coming into view: adapting to the free market economy, attracting spectators at a time of huge economic uncertainty, and staging performances that no longer relied on breaking or flirting with political taboos. But in Dresden, the company’s new manager was sanguine about these developments: he considered it normal, indeed welcome, that theatre had been overtaken by events for which it had – in his view – helped to pave the way.